Ukraine’s presidential election candidates Friday made a final effort to appeal for the support of voters deeply disillusioned with the Orange Revolution on the last day of campaigning.
Leading opinion polls ahead of Sunday’s vote is pro-Russian politician Viktor Yanukovich — the defeated candidate in 2004 when the Orange Revolution street protests forced a re-run of rigged polls and sparked hope of a new era.
By contrast, the 2004 winner and champion of Ukraine’s EU integration President Viktor Yushchenko is set for a humiliating first round exit with his reputation scarred by the failure of the Revolution to deliver reform.
Yanukovich, a dour ex-mechanic once jailed for theft, hopes to win Sunday’s election outright but it is almost certain that he will fail to win a majority and that the poll will go to a second round on February 7.
He is expected to be joined in a run-off by Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, famed for her traditional golden hair braid, whom analysts believe still has time to make up the difference over the next three weeks.
“I think that the intrigue is not over yet,” Volodymyr Fesenko, director of the Penta centre for political studies in Kiev, told AFP.
“I think Tymoshenko has chances to win if she succeeds in mobilising post-Orange voters wanting European integration and wins voters from the defeated candidates.”
Yanukovich rounded off his campaign with a glitzy rally in central Kiev where he was serenaded by Ukrainian pop star Taisia Povaliy and launched a new withering attack on the Orange leaders who he accused of ruining the country.
The election “will be the judgement on the authorities who were not capable of effectively managing the country,” he told the thousands of supporters who braved freezing temperatures for the rally.
Just before the midnight deadline for campaigning to end, Yushchenko gave a televised address to the nation in which he warned of threats to Ukraine’s European integration in the election.
“January 17 could be the day when the country is pushed backwards,” he said.
Tymoshenko meanwhile will want to ensure her second-place standing is not endangered by a late surge from a third-place candidate, businessman Sergiy Tigipko, who appears to have made gains over the last weeks.
She stood side-by-side with Yushchenko in the Orange Revolution but they fell out dramatically afterwards. The president spent much of the campaign seeking to destroy her character, to the delight of Yanukovich strategists.
Although both share a strong belief in EU integration, the erstwhile allies became locked in a bitter personal power struggle, each convinced that the other was criminally responsible for wrecking the country.
“All revolutions disappoint, but this one has disappointed more than most,” said Andrew Wilson of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
Yanukovich draws his strongest support in the industrial and largely Russian speaking east of Ukraine, whereas Tymoshenko’s heartland is the more agricultural west where the Ukrainian language predominates.
As a final card, Tymoshenko could raise Yanukovich’s convictions and jail sentences in 1967 and 1970 for theft and assault, which were both erased by the courts in December 1978.
One of the stranger contenders is Vasyl Gumeniuk, a local politician from western Ukraine who registered his candidacy after changing his surname to Protyvsikh — or “Against All” in Ukrainian.
In another case of election cynicism, a website entitled prodaygolos.com.ua (sellyourvote.com) emerged ahead of the polls allowing Ukrainians the chance to auction off their vote.
After it caused something of a scandal, however, visitors are now being told the mysterious site is closed.